Charles Mercier (trans.), Terence: Brothers. Produced and directed by Charles Mercier and Alexander Gombach. Technical direction by Ralph Umhoefer. The Terence Project, 1996. Video: color, 108 minutes. $59.95 + $4.00 s/h.
Reviewed by Martin M. Winkler, George Mason University, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This video of Terence's Adelphoe, taped at Vassar College, is the first in a projected series of video adaptations of all of Terence's extant plays.1 Brothers is the only complete visual adaptation of a Roman comedy currently available.2 Given its semi-professional nature and small budget, both immediately apparent, the production's visual qualities are necessarily limited. Taping took place in existing locations on the college campus and with a minimal amount of set decoration, such as graffiti and "herm paintings," the latter including a HIC HABITAT MICIO modeled on the Pompeiian HIC HABITAT FELICITAS.3 The opening shot shows contemporary surroundings (Vassar's Creamery, the main location) and suggests that a modern-dress version of the play is to follow.4 It comes as a small surprise then to see the actors in "Roman" costumes. The chief drawback of the visual side of the production is its excessive reliance on facial close-ups and medium close-ups, doubtless the most pernicious legacy of decades of television practice ("talking heads"). Such extreme close-ups, especially when they involve a wide-angle lens, sometimes lead to a distorted image. It is a relief now and then to be able to "step back" from the characters and to observe them in their environment. The use of a stationary microphone attached to the camera may have made these close-ups unavoidable. The level of recorded sound also varies throughout; in some scenes, particularly those involving more than one character (e.g. in Act II), parts of the dialogue are nearly inaudible. Changes of the camera set-up within a scene sometimes cause color distortions in the image, most noticeably at III.4. The staging of IV.2 is rather clumsy, and so is the beginning of V.7, where Demea speaks to Aeschinus who is off-screen left although we have not seen him walk there. On a couple of occasions, a dog is heard barking off-screen, and one of the lines receives an off-screen laugh from a crew member or other observer.
Casting and acting are uneven, although it is obvious that most of the actors seem to have enjoyed their work -- a valuable asset. The most notable feature of the production is its "color-blind" casting, ostensibly for the sake of reminding the audience of Terence's African origins and, in the words of The Terence Project's booklet for Brothers, to portray "the multiculturalism of the ancient world ... before modern racial prejudice." This is no doubt a laudable intention. Unfortunately, however, no effective use is made of it to comment, if only indirectly, on the history of race relations in the United States, as when a black Micio frees a white Syrus. Micio's erubuit at 643 about Aeschinus is invisible, too, but so it was when masked actors performed the play in antiquity. Both the actors playing Syrus and Ctesipho are too young for their parts, and audiences will be surprised to hear Syrus referring to himself as an old man who has looked after Demea's sons since they were children. Among the smaller parts, the actors playing Sannio and Hegio acquit themselves particularly well. Actors' pronunciations of characters' names are generally accurate. An exception is the jarring mispronunciation of Ctesipho's name. Apparently nobody could pronounce its initial consonants together, and the result usually sounds like "Catasipho" or the like.
Among the four chief parts -- Micio, Demea, Syrus, Aeschinus -- the actor playing Demea (John Paxton) is the most accomplished; his performance grows on the viewer. He is at his best in V.4-6. Micio (F. Orville Goodman) comes off well, too, although I found him occasionally too theatrical for his realistic surroundings. He laughs far too much at IV.5, and his groan-plus-scream for Terence's vah at line 38 strikes me as overdone -- since out of character -- and sets a slightly false tone early on. Another generally strong performance is that of Paul Emporos as Syrus; paradoxically, the actor's age works well in this energetic and lively part. William Jackson seems at first to be somewhat unsure of his part as Aeschinus, but finds surer footing in the course of the play; he brings off his canticum (610-617) especially well.
Mercier's translation is one of the assets of this production. Its fluent and idiomatic prose is faithful to both the letter and the meaning of the original, but with the exception of "damnation" for the damnum of line 231 and "you don't know where he is" for nescis qui vir sit at 723. A few slight anachronisms ("wait a minute," "absolute monarch") present no problem. Line 351 is rightly expanded to explain the legal sense of experiar in the preceding line; by contrast, lines 320-324 are condensed. The third person singular of line 556 is changed to the second person, and ad dextram at 583 has become "left." At 958 Syrus' words are given to Demea and placed into the following line.
Mercier cuts very little of the text. Some of the cuts are justified, as when the images show what the words explain (so at 264, 452-453, and 635). Other cuts or changes, though minor and not damaging, are, in my view, unnecessary, e.g. at lines 517, 621, 644-646, 678, and 881. More serious is the omission of Aeschinus' haec adeo mea culpa fateor fieri at 629: the admission, to himself, of his own responsibility is important for his immediately following scene with Micio, especially in view of Aeschinus' words at 682 and 710-711. Mercier omits the play's Prologue but includes a translation of it on the video's box. At play's end the Cantor also disappears, and the video ends effectively with a wedding celebration of dance, music, and song. Here the invocation of Hymen is an appropriate importation from one of the wedding songs of Catullus (c. LXI).
On the whole the production succeeds on its modest terms. It is clearly a labor of love, and I look forward to the adaptations of Terence's other plays. By then cast and crew, if they return, will surely have learned from the experiences gained with the present production, and we may hope for smoother and visually more accomplished versions. Brothers is a promising beginning. It should be useful for courses on classical civilization or ancient comedy in translation on both the high-school and college levels. But teachers and students may also look toward it as an incentive for their own staging or taping of scenes from classical drama or even of complete plays. Since today's visual media, from television to the internet, are important providers of entertainment, information, and education, the incorporation of film and video into the curriculum may well prove to be essential for the survival of classics as an academic discipline -- provided, of course, that such a use of visuals is done intelligently and with an adherence to certain intellectual standards.5 The Terence Project sets a welcome and much-needed example. From this point of view even its small budget can become an incentive, for Brothers shows convincingly that you don't need large amounts of money to film or stage the ancient plays.
1. Information about the production's origins and history may be obtained from The Terence Project, Box 253, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY 12601; tel. (201) 656-4762; http://faculty.vassar.edu/~chmercie/Terence.
2. For an overview of the (loose) adaptations of ancient comedy to film see Jon Solomon, The Ancient World in the Cinema (South Brunswick & New York: Barnes; London: Yoseloff, 1978), ch. 8.
3. Illustration at, e.g., Michael Grant & Antonia Mulas, Eros in Pompeii: The Secret Rooms of the National Museum of Naples (New York: Bonanza Books, 1982), p.109.
4. On the different "modes" of adapting stage plays to the screen see Kenneth MacKinnon, Greek Tragedy into Film (Rutherford, Madison, & Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1986), following Jack Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).
5. I have addressed this subject in greater detail in my "Introduction" to Classics and Cinema (Bucknell Review, vol. 35.1; Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press; London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1991), pp. 10-12. Cf. also my comments on Roman history in popular culture and film at pp. 136-138 in "Cinema and the Fall of Rome," TAPA 125 (1995) 135-154.